When Spencer West took the stage at One Young World, standing from the waist up before the electrified crowd, a hush fell over the audience at the David Lawrence Convention Center.
Co-founder of Free the Children, Spencer lost his legs as a youth when they were amputated due to a genetic muscular condition. He told his remarkable story of raising more than $500,000 to support clean water in East Africa by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro on his hands.
“’We can not do great things, we can do small things with great heart,'” Mark Kielburger, his Free the Children co-founder told the audience, quoting Mother Teresa.
It was one powerful moment of many as One Young World
rolled into Pittsburgh last week, bringing 1,300 bright and engaged young men and women, ranging from 18 to 30- years-old. The purpose? According to the London-based founders, to help these young leaders make lasting connections for positive change.
An impressive procession of international leaders and celebrity activists joined them for three days of inspiring leadership training. From former president Bill Clinton’s keynote at the opening ceremony at Heinz Hall, to closing remarks from former U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan, the summit rivaled the G20 in scope but with a more inviting format, allowing the delegates to intimately experience Pittsburgh and all the city has to offer.
In its third year, OYW organizers wanted to offer delegates a greater opportunity to work in smaller groups, speak to counselors during the plenary sessions and interact in the host city in response to their feedback from the first two summits.
More than 300 Pittsburgh volunteers and 60 local companies contributed to the event, which included a boat cruise on the river, a Bridgefest with food, music and fireworks on the Roberto Clemente bridge and home dinners at 100 homes throughout Pittsburgh (that alone blew away a lot of delegates who said they're never heard of such a thing – "and yet, how wonderful!")
When OYW was first introduced 16 months ago, the summit was slated to go to Johannesburg, said Andrea Carelli, senior vice president of PNC who served on the organizing committee with Sy Holzer, committee chair and president of PNC.
Rave reviews of the G20 summit, along with letters from corporate executives, foundations and four U.S. Presidents, enabled Pittsburgh to secure the bid.
“Our community put their arms around this organization to make sure we presented the best possible summit we could have for them, business leaders, nonprofits, regular people. Pittsburgh embraced the whole OYW concept. We couldn’t have done it without everyone in the community," says Carelli, who enthusiastically led the marching band and youth delegates to the Bridgefest from Heinz Hall after opening ceremonies.
Pittsburgh won the bid out of 10 cities in a competition that wasn’t even close, said OYW co-organizer David Jones, CEO of Havas PR, a Paris-based global advertising corporation that has an office in Pittsburgh.
“It’s a place that has completely rejuvenated itself, with one of the world’s largest green skyscrapers and convention centers,” said Jones. “And for an event that is all about young people and youth leadership, a mayor who was appointed at the young age of 26.”
Showcasing our city
On Saturday, the delegates had a choice of 50 breakout sessions throughout the city, which showcased Pittsburgh success stories. Companies and nonprofits—Google in Bakery Square, The Neighborhood Academy, City of Asylum, Ya Momz House Recording Studio, and Conflict Kitchen—hosted small forums that addressed a wide array of topics, from innovation and entrepreneurship to urban revitalization.
At DDI International, Tacy Byham led a session called "The Leadership Secrets of the World's Most Successful Leaders," to a sold out group "who were clearly high performers," she said. While they were already focused on enacting change as young global leaders, they also wanted to create change personally and professionally as project leaders, and managers," she said. "So they selected a break-out session to propel their professional development."
Over at the Pittsburgh Foundation, President Grant Oliphant addressed how various sectors in Pittsburgh come together as public/private partnerships to create change, including the transformation of our riverfronts and the revitalization of Market Square. "There has been tremendous creativity in building this community as a place," he noted.
In one small group discussion that followed, the delegates grappled with the question: "What does leadership mean to you?"
"It's the ability to see your vision surrounded by those who can help you," offered a delegate from Australia. "It's the power to be able to move people to do better," said another, from Guinea.
A young man from China translated for his shy friend who is working to educate poor children whose parents have moved to large Chinese cities in search of work. "She is helping children from migrant families, from every corner of China. They need someone to help them to get educated. The government in China controls all the NGOs and they are not well developed, they can't get enough money."
Eager to help, a delegate from Heinz described her company's micro-nutrient campaign in China. "Be sure you three connect before we leave here," implored facilitator Aradhna Malhotra Oliphant of Leadership Pittsburgh.
While the issues were global, the setting was local all the way. The David L. Lawrence Convention Center might have never looked cooler or more luminescent. A sweep of ever changing video panels set the tone, with a stage furnished with white leather ottomans and modern white chairs, framed by an array of international flags.
The summit moved adeptly through a packed schedule during seven plenary sessions that discussed the global food revolution, transparency and corruption in governments and businesses, healthy and human rights and sustainability.
Technology ruled. Delegates voted instantly for action items through handheld devices. Attendees tweeted throughout and weighed in during breakout sessions on issues by smartphone.
Among the highlights, Jamie Oliver, founder of The Food Revolution, launched a new program with local leaders to promote healthy eating. Delegates heard from Bob Geldolf, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and CEO of Kiva Jessica Jackley.
Pittsburgh, for its part, rose to the occasion. On Saturday night the 1300 delegates were invited to gather around the dinner table with nearly 100 Pittsburgh families, an amazing logistical feat pulled off by state senate candidate Erin Molchany and Leigh Halverson of the Pittsburgh Foundation.
At the home of Grant and Aradhna Oliphant in Squirrel Hill, eight delegates mingled with other guests and discussed everything from world politics to their impressions of Pittsburgh and the summit. "Phenomenal," declared a delegate named Jordan from Canada about the summit. He especially loved the "power networking" and the way his name tag acted as an invitation to talk to anyone there. And everyone, he assured, was worth talking to.
The next day at lunch Jordan invited the Pop City editor to join Dale and Cindy Hogg, two Canadian social entrepreneurs along with Wielif, a 26-year old delegate from Kenya who told his comeback story. As a youth he was homeless and rescued by someone from Los Angeles who helped him get off the streets and turn his life around. Today, he is operating his own home for homeless youth, Kito International
, complete with training programs to give them the skills they need to be independent.
At the end of the story, Dale Hogg expressed his desire to help the young man and they exchanged cards and a possible visit to Kenya while attending the One Young World summit in Johannesburg, S. Africa next year.
It was one story of connection among many.
Ashton Armstrong was one of dozens of Pittsburghers in attendance. An Americorps volunteer who works in the Mayor's office, she was moved by the summit and inspired to create change as a result. "Ironically, it was not the long list of famous counselors that inspired me to change the world; it was the feeling of being surrounded by young leaders and listening to their ideas that really made me feel that I am a part of an amazing generation."
Be the change
Change is the goal at One Young World. "After the summit, delegates go back to their communities and take that inspiration and use it to start changing things," said co-founder Kate Robertson in a press conference on Thursday afternoon. When asked what has resulted from previous summits, she cited the African student leadership summit which consisted of 43 countries and more than 100 universities.
Co-founder David Jones noted that delegates have gone on to raise money for hunger and poverty initiatives, and created schools projects to put supplies into the hands of children.
“When you see things like that happening, you know that that people really do change and inspire change and meaningful bodies and organizations that really will be forces for good," said Robertson.
What will result from the summit in Pittsburgh? That remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure. “This was a great opportunity to keep Pittsburgh on the world stage,” said Steven Sokol, president of the World Affairs Council who in fact took the stage at Heinz Hall like a rock star and energized the crowd on Thursday night.
“The Pittsburgh Summit will be remembered as where One Young World was able to take the training wheels off and do some really amazing things. We’ve raised the bar.”
And this just in: in a letter to the Post Gazette this morning, October 24th, co-founders Jones and Robertson praised Pittsburgh as a summit host city that will be hard to pass. "We leave with full hearts and overwhelmed by the people of Pittsburgh. We've experienced creativity and delivery in abundance and generosity that can't be put into words...how will any city surpass Pittsburgh? How can they?"
Deb Smit is innovation news editor of Pop City. Tracy Certo is publisher and managing editor of Pop City. Writer Elaine Labalme contributed to this article.
Photos: Spencer West, One Young World, Bob Geldof photo and group of delegates at the Oliphant house, Tracy Certo.